Project Wisdom Itinerary

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Volunteering with Children Abroad: the Issues You Should Know

by Flora on June 28, 2013 

When looking for volunteering projects in foreign countries, one of the first things to catch people’s eye is working with children. There are so many orphaned and impoverished children around the world in need of love, care and affection, and those of us who want to help know that we have the ability to deliver without much prior preparation.

So whether it’s teaching English, helping out in an orphanage or working in a daycare centre, the general thought process is that volunteering with children is likely to be an enjoyable experience for all involved. But is that really the way things go?

There are varying opinions on the subject.

“It’s so rewarding!” is a common response to hear. “Incredible! Life affirming!” says another.

But then you ask someone who’s been volunteering with children for months, in a country so much more underdeveloped than their own that the differences are overwhelming.

“It’s difficult,” they say, thoughtfully. You can see the cogs whirring as they try to condense and vocalize a myriad of experiences and opinions. Child-based voluntourism; it’s at once both positive and problematic. And there’s a reason for the furor surrounding the subject.

People want to go where they’re most needed – where their efforts will be valued and appreciated – but they also want to feel good about themselves, and enjoy their experience. And this is where things get really tricky, because often those two requisites are at totally opposite ends of the spectrum.

A surprising lack of affection

“Put that child down! She can’t be held, she’ll cry too much!”

So it goes at my afternoon placement in the sunny city of Cuenca, where I’ve been falsely laboring under the delusion that children from poverty-stricken single parent families may enjoy a cuddle or two from time to time. At the very least, some physical contact.

More fool me.

Apparently, the list of rules at this Catholic daycare centre is lengthy. It’s also apparently supposed to be learned by osmosis, seeing as none of the nuns working here have ever explained them to me face to face. Instead, I discover what I can and can’t do with the kids only when I do something wrong. Which seems to happen a lot.

This particular mistake of mine – picking up a crying one year old and holding her for a few moments – stems from an issue I simply can’t get my head around.

In this daycare centre, picking children up is not allowed.

The reason that I’ve ascertained is that their parents don’t give them enough love, affection or contact when at home, so anything they receive from you, a foreigner, is considered problematic. Something that, as a volunteer eager to help (and thus also play copiously with cute foreign children) I find really hard to accept.

Making a difference

It’s difficult to realize that your very presence can be debilitating, but volunteer organizations and care workers around the world know all too well how detrimental a foreign volunteer can potentially be to a group of vulnerable young children. Because many of the kids who are the subject of voluntourism projects come from difficult backgrounds, it’s likely that they develop problems with their attachment abilities.

When you throw in a constant stream of different volunteers who visit for just a few weeks at a time, thus repeatedly making and then breaking bonds with the children they’re tasked with looking after, it’s a recipe for long-term emotional damage.

Volunteering with kids in Mombasa, Kenya

Judging on the amount of bad press that short-term volunteering receives, it’s sadly clear why the nuns at my daycare centre are trying to enforce this rule. For them, it’s simple; the less attached the children get to foreign volunteers, the fewer problems they’ll have when the aforementioned volunteers leave again.

The hardship, however, is that so many people choose to volunteer with children precisely so they can forge an emotional attachment. Children are cute, fundamentally, and that’s why people are more tempted to travel thousands of miles to work with them.

Children need time – sometimes more than you’re willing to give

The problem is that children can get attached at lightning speed – particularly if they’re young, and particularly if they crave affection, and don’t often get it. Within three minutes of playing with the kids at my orphanage placement in Kathmandu, they were calling me sister and hugging me like we’d known each other all their short lives.

So if you only volunteer for a few weeks, you’re firstly barely scratching the surface of what it means to work at your placement, and secondly you’re providing those kids with a solely detrimental experience. Because while it’s clear that they love the attention, whenever it comes, they’re ultimately too young to understand that a brief moment of connection will be more debilitating than nothing at all.

When I travelled to Nepal for just a month before heading to India, I wanted to volunteer in Kathmandu the entire time I was there. So I found an organisation that offered volunteer work in orphanages, priced from as short a period as two weeks, with further payments for every additional week. Looking back now I’m really ashamed that I thought spending just a month in an orphanage would be sensible; but I went for it.

What followed was a painful realisation of how bad it is to give deprived children such a short amount of your time before leaving them forever. They clearly expected me to stay for much longer than I did, and it was heartbreaking to say goodbye, knowing they didn’t really understand; and, moreover, watching them immediately latch onto another volunteer that had just arrived.

Learning the hard way from my time in Nepal, I’d now stipulate that you should only ever consider volunteering with kids, and at orphanages in particular, for a period of at least three months or more.

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